New Players, Ideas, and Arrangements: The Quest to Counter-balance China
by Philip Vincent Alegre/ March 16, 2018/ Originally Posted at APPFI
In November of last year, the world witnessed the US put forward new rhetoric in its foreign policy toward Asia. US President Donald Trump, towards the end of his 12-day five nation Asia tour, departed from usual US language and started referring to an “Indo-Pacific” region instead of “Asia Pacific”, a move which did not go unnoticed by analysts and observers in the region.
Senior White House officials, including National Security Adviser H R McMaster and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, repeatedly used the new term in their press briefings and speeches in the same period. It was evident that the usage of the new regional concept is a policy by the Trump administration intended to address growing concerns and rapid changes in the Asia Pacific.
Concomitant to the introduction of the new nomenclature was the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or ‘Quad’, a grouping among the four countries of US, Japan, India, and Australia that had first been touted in 2007. The quadrilateral grouping was projected as the alignment of “like-minded” democracies, but it clearly had as a strategic component as the four countries held week-long joint military exercises in the Bay of Bengal dubbed as the Malabar Exercise, in 2007.
The Indo-Pacific rhetoric and the formation of the Quad are the traditional powers’ response to China’s initiatives and growing clout. The Quad Initiative is meant to address what Brahma Chellaney described as a “qualitative reordering of power” in Asia and to ensure “strategic stability and power equilibrium” in the region. This reordering of power is discernibly due to China’s rapid development as a global player both in economic and military terms. Today, China’s rise and global aspirations are more evident than ever as Chinese President Xi Jinping aims at the ultimate realization of the “Chinese Dream.”
India enters the picture
In the formation of these two concepts, India’s involvement has been particularly crucial. One of the reasons for the extension of the idea of “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” is to pave the way for India’s participation. The “Indo-Pacific” concept is founded on the idea that the countries in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean have common interests which could be better addressed jointly.
Moreover, it makes strategic sense to get India on the side of the traditional powers due to several factors. Even if India wanted to avoid direct involvement in regional affairs that would happen if it explicitly sided with one major power, it has seen increasing encounters against China over geopolitical irritants. For one, India has a long-standing border dispute with Pakistan in the Kashmir region. When China unrolled its ambitious One Belt One Road Initiative, Pakistan was among the first beneficiaries, as China agreed to help Pakistan build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), including infrastructure projects meant to facilitate trade and economic development in the area. However, the CPEC passes through the Kashmir region, placing China’s projects in conflict with India’s territorial claims. India signaled its protest by boycotting the grand Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation hosted by Xi Jinping in May of last year.
In 2017, a standoff in the Doklam area due to Chinese road construction in a disputed border, and border altercations in Ladakh between Indian and Chinese forces, erupted. These two incidents dealt heavy blows to the two countries’ relations with each other. Aside from border disputes, India and China also have other friction points such as India’s hosting of Tibet’s Dalai Lama, and just recently, the political crisis in Maldives where China and India are supporting opposing sides.
With these developments, it is becoming difficult for India to stay in the sidelines while another country which has the capability to violate its borders continues to amass economic and military strength. It therefore finds that joining forces with the traditional powers to deter China’s assertive behavior in the region will also serve its own geopolitical interests.
Implications of the Indo-Pacific Concept
The Indo-Pacific concept which signals India’s entry into the Asia Pacific security arena has several regional implications. India’s greater involvement sends the message that it does not shy away from demonstrating open defiance of China. It did not hesitate to snub Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Forum last year and has been steadfast in its resolve to protect its territorial boundaries and regional interests in South Asia. That the region can have another player holding its ground against initiatives by China that infringe on national interests, adds weight to the campaign by the traditional powers to pose a credible challenge and compete with China’s influence.
Aside from adding much-needed weight to US and its allies, the introduction of the Indo-Pacific concept demonstrates a shift from a China-focused “Asia-Pacific” to a wider geographic concept. The added geographic scope, further diversification of interests, and entry of additional players help create the perception of a moderated Chinese influence. This perception is highly essential in providing traditional powers the political space needed for rolling out their own initiatives.
The Quad and its challenges
The Indo-Pacific rhetoric underpins the revival of the Quad in the same way that the Quad validates the shift in language due to the addition of a new player. The convergence of interests in the whole of the Indo-Pacific’s geographic scope allows for the seemingly harmless re-grouping of the four countries which make up the Quad — US, Japan, India, and Australia.
The Quad is set to facilitate greater engagement among these four countries on regional security concerns, and will also utilize economic initiatives by one, by the whole, or by a combination of its members. India has its Act East Policy with the original objective of greater economic engagement with the Asia Pacific region; Japan and India are spearheading the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor or AAGC, a development project to integrate the economies of South, Southeast, East Asia, and the African continent; and in February this year, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop revealed that the members of the Quad were discussing a joint infrastructure plan. The AAGC is said to be India’s and Japan’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while a Quad infrastructure plan has been dubbed the Belt and Road alternative.
The use of economic initiatives could be the Quad’s way of counter-balancing China without eliciting strong protest. After all, a strong reaction from China can pose a serious challenge to the Quad’s existence. The four countries must remember the lessons of 2007 when it disbanded shortly after its formation due to Beijing’s strong protest, claiming the group was an attempt to contain its rise.
China’s influence is even much stronger now, ten years after the Quad was first introduced. Furthermore, China is a major economic partner of multiple countries in the region, including the Quad members themselves. 2016 data from the World Bank’s WITS database indicate that China is Japan’s second largest trading partner next to the US; third for the US; fourth for India; while being the top trading partner of Australia. With this economic comparison alone, it is not difficult to identify Australia as the weak link of the Quad.
Australia is tiptoeing on a narrow line between its security ally – the US- and top economic partner – China. Australia’s longtime alliance with the US has endured and is still relevant to this day, if not even more relevant. However, it is forced into a balancing act, needing to be careful not to be too close to the US in order not to upset China and suffer the same fate as other countries that had irked the regional power. With China’s grand economic initiatives, more assertive behavior, and with the US posing a credible challenge, balancing between the two is proving to be difficult for Australia. Whether it will be able to continue its commitment to a traditional ally while appeasing an economic benefactor will in part be determined by how the Quad and its members will approach the situation.
The Quad and the Indo-Pacific concept, although not new ideas, are still in their nascent phases in the present context. How these two initiatives will play out in the current geopolitical arrangement, against China’s own initiatives and more assertive behavior has yet to be determined. China, aside from its call for the Quad and the Indo-Pacific to be “open“ and “inclusive”, has so far not implemented any policy directly targeting the Quad. The Quad’s plans for establishing a BRI alternative are still under discussion. For the coming months, we may expect to see how Quad on the one hand and China on the other hand, will try to craft and implement foreign policies that are more directed towards each other.